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  • Writer's picturePaula Cullison

Japan - The Land of Traditions, Temples, Tea, and Tatami Mats

Japan Airlines - Welcome

This my report on the WYVEA (World Youth Visit Exchange Association) trip to Japan.

When Flight 069 on Japan Airlines departed from LAX on time, I realized that the rest of our two-week trip would have a sense of regularity about it. The mission of this trip, which was partially underwritten by the Japanese government, was educational with an emphasis on cultural understanding. Combining home-stays with hotel stays made this a wonderful way to experience Japan. We will reciprocate with home-stays for the Japanese visiting Arizona.

The plane landed in Osaka where we changed for a flight to Fukuoka. There we met our translator and official guide, Mari Takebayashi, and another member of WYVEA Japan. We spent the first night in the Station Plaza Hotel and were treated the next morning to a sumptuous buffet breakfast. This would be the first of many such meals. Our coach drove us to Yame, famous for its green tea, where we spent time at the local traditional crafts center making and decorating paper. Later, we visited the Yamamura Family owned fabric dying and weaving business where we had our own private kimono fashion show; we were the models. Our host families eagerly awaited our arrival at a community center where we were all introduced.

Hitome, Takahito, Kentaro, & YutaroTsutsumi - Homestay in Yame

Hitsomi Tsutsumi and her husband Takahito had been high school sweethearts; they have two young sons-Kentaro age 6 and Yutaro age 4. To them I was Paula-san. I was their first guest, as this was their first hosting experience. They were charming. Hitsomi works part-time as a receptionist at the local medical center. Hitsomi had been taking private English lessons for herself and for Kentaro who was working on his numbers and colors. I felt like I had helped them with their conversation ability. Her desire to travel is keen; I hope she does. Their apartment was small; I was given the boys’ room and a tatami mat with futon. The family slept on a tatami mat in the living room area for the two nights of my visit.

The apartment building was located adjacent to the local rice field. This lush green area attracted many frogs that croaked all night. Tatami mats and frogs...oh my! Hitomi prepared miso soup, raw fish and rice. One time she bought prepared chicken. I noticed that everything is prepared stove top, as there are no ovens in the Japanese kitchens. Eating with chopsticks became easier as the trip progressed.

frogs that croaked all night. Tatami mats and frogs...oh my! Hitomi prepared miso soup, raw fish and rice. One time she bought prepared chicken. I noticed that everything is prepared stove top, as there are no ovens in the Japanese kitchens. Eating with chopsticks became easier as the trip progressed.

The other interesting part of my first home-stay was the slippers. There are house slippers and then there are toilet slippers. In such a short space of walking, I had to change my slippers. I guess leaving the house slippers outside the toilet area alerted the others that the room was occupied. Fortunately, there were no other slippers for the bathtub area. As they say: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Hiroshima - Thousands of Origami Cranes for Peace

That evening there was a 20th Anniversary dinner party for us. The Arizona delegation was part of the entertainment of the evening; we danced, sang and played the taeko drums. I met Kumi Kakehashi who asked me to send her regards to a Phoenician who had visited Yame 10 years ago (mission accomplished). I also me Dr. Saikiko Kamachi, a highly respected pediatrician, who has a hospital named in her honor. She presented me with a lovely lace handkerchief.

Takahito took his day off during my visit so we could all drive to the Ohana Castle Museum in Yanagawa City where we saw many antiques: swords, dolls, pottery, traditional kimonos, arts treasures and architecture. Takahito has been working for Coke Cola of Japan for 12 years. It seemed that if he could he would change positions, but that didn’t seem possible. Apparently, most employees work over 50 hours a week. So, he treasures his free time and his weekly Kendo (martial arts) lessons. When it was time to leave, Hitsomi and the boys took me to the train station. We said our good-byes in the parking lot since it was very crowed. She began to cry; I was very moved. We bonded in such a short period of time. Not only did she e-mail me upon my return, but she also telephoned!

Our next stay at the New Hiroden Hotel in Hiroshima proved to be most interesting and enjoyable, not to mention delicious (oyshi). The visit to the Peace Memorial and the Museum and the sight of the A- Bomb Memorial (UNESCO World Heritage site) were all very poignant. The horrors of the dropping of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were documented so that the next generation would be keenly aware that they must work for world peace. There were school children everywhere. They smiled and flashed the peace sign. We placed our origami cranes on top of thousands of others. We watched as a member of the official delegation from Yemen signed the peace agreement and placed flowers at the Cenotaph designed by Tange Kenzo to memorialize the victims of the bombing. The Hiroshima Peace Park was filled with school children dressed in their dark blue and white uniforms.

Miyajima Island

Some of us went to the Hiroshima Castle and climbed to the top so we could view the city which, like the Phoenix, has resurrected itself out of the ashes of its past. It was a time of thoughtful reflection for all of us. We found a restaurant that prepared omayaki, an egg-based dish with a variety of ingredients. This regional dish was cooked on a huge open grill. Guests were seated around the perimeter, so they could watch the show.

The next day we took a boat ride to Miyajima Island. The Great Torii, the sea entrance to Ituskushima Shrine founded in 593, stood erect to welcome us. Mount Misen beckoned us to climb into its arms. But we settled for a few moments in meditation at the shrine and then a few hours in the air- conditioned aquarium on this hot and humid day. A brief visit to the Daisho-in Temple allowed us just enough time to run up the steps and turn the prayer wheels; as it was closing time. We noticed that the tame deer of Miyajima were rather aggressive. Most tourists wait for a cooler time to visit the island where they can hand feed the deer. Watching the tide come in so the Torii was knee deep in water and seeing the sunset on Hiroshima Bay were memorable.

That evening some of us dined on omayaki and oysters sautéed in butter. It was heavenly...oyshi.

Back to the train station...we made good use of the Japan Railroad (JR)...always clean, comfortable and on time. We moved at a good clip, as we navigated the train station on our way to Kurashiki and our next home-stay. When we arrived, we were treated to a tour of the private quarters of a shogun and a walk along the canal bank accompanied by Good Will Ambassadors. They were older women who wore white gloves and used umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. My guide, Mino Junko, was charming. She spoke English quite well and was very excited about sharing her love for Japanese culture with me. We spent a great deal of time at the Folk Art Museum and the Ohara Art Museum. Mino explained that Mr. Ohara had traveled to Europe and purchased many paintings during the Impressionist period. He brought them back to Japan so that Japanese artists, who were unable to afford a trip to Europe, could study the techniques directly from the paintings. I must admit that the collection was not as impressive as the modern building which housed them. Mino pointed out paintings of Degas, Monet and Renault that had been stolen and then returned to the museum.

At our lunch gathering, I met Shnobu Naramura, a young woman with a cell phone which could send e-mail. She asked if I would like to send a message home; and so, I did. Since pressing the letters on a cell phone pad is a bit difficult, my message was rather short....Hello from Japan Love MOM. During yet another sumptuous lunch served in a beautifully lacquered bento box, Shinobu informed me that she and her husband were in the process of opening a coffee shop in Kurashiki. These are all the rage in Japan where the Japanese have discovered bread and coffee, and have given a new meaning to the term bread lines. This entrepreneurial venture will be called the Passport Café. So when in Kurashiki, please stop by to say Hello from Phoenix, Love Paula.

As we parted, I wished her all the best with the new venture. An e-mail after my return would announce that I was the first to be informed of Shinobu’s newly discovered first pregnancy. The baby is due in March. What an honor! We then headed for the community center where we would meet our host families. There I met Shuji and Noriko Iwanaga who lived nearby in Okayama City. They had a beautiful new home where their home-based graphics sign business was located. The light colored wood of their house was warm and inviting. I had a room upstairs with an individually controlled air- conditioning unit. Noriko’s 82 year old parents, the Mifume’s, lived with them. Although her mother was in the hospital with a breathing problem, she was discharged with an oxygen tank so she could spend some time with me, their guest from the USA. The parents were darling. They smiled with delight when I showed photos of my family and of Arizona.

The gifts were a big hit. To each host family I presented the following: a book on Arizona, a computer screen saver of Arizona, a box of chocolates, a polished rock (Jasper) about the size of a baseball with a stand, a small Navajo sand painting, a wind chime with a message about friendship and a photo card of my family. These were placed in a gift bag with a country style American flag design. At each home, the gifts were put in a place of honor.

I also had small gifts of pins, key chains and chocolate bars that I presented to the local committee members, as we traveled on this wonderful journey. Shuji enjoyed speaking English, and was pleased with his ability to do so. Noriko had fun practicing, as she had been taking lessons. I was happy to become the private tutor. Noriko grew her own vegetables and made pickles from her secret recipe, a murky concoction. Although I hadn’t known about the Japanese fascination with pickles, I did know about the calendars. At times I was surprised to see numerous calendars within a small room. Perhaps it’s the pictures on the calendars rather that the date that holds the appeal.

That evening, their married son (wearing a Phoenix Suns Anfernee Hardaway T-shirt) and his wife came for a short visit. They brought a cake for dessert, another new phenomena as the Japanese generally eat fruit for dessert...or have something with Jell-O, another new discovery.

The Iwanaga’s are technocrats. With their digital camera, Shuji took a time released group photo which he then e- mailed to my family, so they could see me. Within a few day, they would be hosting Glenn, an African-American teen-ager from New York City who would be studying Japanese for three weeks. Glenn would occupy the room where I slept on a tatami mat and futon. He would take the local bus into Kurashiki for his daily classes. I told the

Iwanaga’s that I would telephone Glenn’s family when I returned. Shuji asked me to write a note to Glenn which I did. I assured him that he would receive kind hospitality and good home made meals.

Iyama Hofukuji Shrine in Kurashiki

We spent the next morning at the Showa Pre-school where children are color coded by age groups (yellow hats for the 2 year olds and blue hats for the 4 year olds). The children who were very well behaved and happy delighted us with their songs, dances and taeko drum playing. Even though it was hot and humid, these young children showed little evidence of malcontent. We assisted in the preparation of paper cut outs for decorating the tree in celebration of Tannebata. We would later be offered an opportunity to write our wish and tie it to a “tree”. At the Iyama Hofuku-Ji Shrine in Kuarashiki we found beautiful gardens and time for reflection. The statues of the gods of the shinto religion welcomed us as we learned more about one of the world’s oldest religions. The lunch was prepared at the nearby vegetarian restaurant by the priests of the shrine. The meals were always beautifully presented; the numerous small bowls held a variety of tasty delights. Tea quenched our thirst.

A personal hand towel was offered at the beginning of each meal to cleanse and refresh each guest. Sitting on a tatami mat became a bit easier as the trip progressed. After our final dinner together where a great deal of slurping of noodles could be heard, I asked Shuji to write a few words in Japanese calligraphy on my had made paper from Yame. They were peace, friendship and happiness. He signed their names in calligraphy as well. It was dated the 4th of July.

At the train station, both Shuji and Noriko bought tickets so they could accompany us onto the platform and wait until the train departed. Their kindness will be long remembered.

Our first stop in Kyoto was the Golden Pavillion Kikaku-ju built in 1220. I could have easily remained in the gardens surrounding the shrine for the entire day. The lush green vegetation was home to numerous birds and the pond to many fish. The tranquil setting invited deep thoughtful reflection and meditation; a sense of peace prevailed. However, we had miles to go before we slept; and so, it was on to Sanjusangen-do Temple built in 1164. There we were invited to cleans ourselves with water from the natural flow of a nearby stream. The vista of mountains lush with green vegetation was all so picture perfect! The tempo of Kyoto, a city with a population of 1.5 million, was easy to enjoy.

The public transportation was excellent. We headed for the Gion district where after a dinner of shabu- shabu, we enjoyed a cultural presentation at a local theater. It consisted of a shortened version of several traditional performing arts: koto music duet, Noh, Kabuki, geisha, tea ceremony, and Bunraku puppets. That night I wandered into a Pachinko Parlor which was near the Kyoto Tower Hotel, our abode. The noise level was so high that the employees wore earmuffs. I purchased a 1,000 yen ($10) card, was given instructions by the attendant and played. To my surprise, the machine indicated that I had earned 500 yen worth of points. I collected and left, but not before a photo was taken of me at the parlor. This is the only legalized gambling in Japan. No wonder the parlors are packed!

The next morning we headed for Ginka ku-ju Temple, one of the largest Zen gardens and temples in Japan.

Ginka kuji temple zen garden in Kyoto

A few of us took the walk along the Path of Philosophy where we were greeted by Maneki Nekko at the numerous shrines we visited. This darling cat figure, a welcome sign of joy and prosperity, was a popular figure. Along the path we met several 6th grade students who needed help with a homework assignment. They had a questionnaire which guided their interviews with tourists whom they might meet at popular tourist sites.

To prove the authenticity of such interviews the students were required to photograph those whom they interviewed. We were willing subjects. The questions ran the gamut: Where are you from? What interested you in Japan? What are your impressions? It was one of those delightful unexpected occasions when traveling. Later we headed for the traditional crafts center located in the heart of the city. Each floor is filled with several different crafts: jewelry, dolls, wood block prints, calligraphy, paintings, clothing – kimonos, swards, antiques. Afterwards, I visited Heinan Shrine: the Shrine of Peace and Tranquility which was built in 1895 and hosts numerous festivals. The nearby Kyoto National Museum held an exhibition of contemporary arts and crafts. There, I encountered an elderly couple who were dressed traditionally and who agreed to pose for a photo, one which I will treasure for a long time to come.

At the JR train station, I made my first of a few gift purchases, a beautifully decorated bottle of sakai. We departed for Nagoya (the home of Toyota, our family’s favorite automobile) and were met upon arrival by the host families. Nagoya is the Sister City to Los Angeles, Mexico City and Sydney. Hiroaki and Shoko Kinoshita greeted me. It took us a while to located their car in the parking garage under the train station.

With this accomplished, we drove to their lovely new home where they showed me to my room on the second floor. I was surprised to find a western bed. Although both had retired, he from the city water works department and she from a nursery school, they had jobs. Hiroaki was working for the city government and Shoko was providing part time child care in their home. Of their own three children, only their daughter Naoko, an acupuncture student, lived with them. Their other daughter married an American who was teaching English in Nagoya; they now live in California. (I telephoned her when I returned.) Their son lives in his own apartment close to his work. Shoko was an excellent cook. I was treated royally. That day we took a short trip to see the Nagoya Noh Theater which was made of Japanese cypress (hinoki). The fragrance of this beautiful smooth, pale yellow wood fills the 650 seat theater which also contains a small museum with a permanent collection on the traditional theater of Noh. We had some tea there before returning home.

That evening their friend Echo came for dinner and sang traditional Japanese songs; Hiroaki performed magic tricks. The next day Shoko’s sister, Sumi Issiki, showed her carvings-two artfully crafted Noh masks; then she performed a traditional tea ceremony. Naoko demonstrated her Salsa dancing in preparation for a competition in New York City the following month. Shoko also enjoys gospel singing. I told them about Glenn and the Iwanaga family and gave them gave them Shuji’s e- mail address. Hopefully, they will connect.

Rice Containers - Itsuskushima Shrine

Before the next evening’s farewell party that would bring together all delegates, their host families and local planning committee members, Shoko asked me to try on a yukata. It was a summer cotton kimono that her mother had made several years ago. To my surprise she presented it to me as a gift, along with a pair of traditional grass sandals. I wore it proudly to the farewell party. The next morning Shoko accompanied me on the bus and subway to the Garden Hotel located near the train station. This would make for a convenient departure the following morning. After all congregated in the hotel lobby, Shoko said, “see you tonight”, and returned home.

On our last day in Nagoya, we had an official visit with the Department of Education heads in Nagoya. This formal meeting was held around a huge table. We each introduced ourselves. The government translator was fluent in English. She later informed me that she had lived in the US and studied in Chicago before returning home. We then visited the Sanyousou High School a Buddhist school with an international curriculum. At that visit there were three native English speaking teachers on the faculty: one from Canada, one from the USA, and one from Scotland. The students enjoyed our interaction. We were also invited to visit the oldest teahouse in the area that is part of the high school property. The gift of a beautifully illustrated history of the teahouse will be treasured by each of us. It was most impressive art book.

We attended the national SUMO wrestling championships. We were lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, so we could give personal testimony to the size and power of these men. I had no idea how exciting this would be. The ritual of cleansing with salt; the traditionally dressed referees and announcers; and the cheers from the crowds made for quite a happening. Musashimaru, the Hawaiian born favorite, had the last match which he won; thus, assuring himself of high prominence in the world of champion SUMO wrestlers. Akebono, another Hawaiian born SUMO wrestler champion, retired this year.

The farewell party held in a restaurant located near the hotel was fun. There were so many leftovers that I requested takeout boxes, so the host families could take the food home. This is very uncommon in Japan. The families took whatever they wanted. I had made the same gesture in Yame where the only containers were plastic bags. Reminder: When traveling to Japan bring a box of large zip lock bags. Also sitting on the tatami mats was a bit difficult while wearing the yukata. I will practice sitting in this position before my next visit.

Off to Toyko! The JR train station was very modern, as was most of Nagoya which suffered from the bombing during WWII. From the train we could catch a glimpse of Himeji Castle. I wished that we could have spent some time in the city where our daughter was an exchange student ten years ago. Himeji is one of the sister cities of Phoenix. The train ride was very comfortable. When I shared my pear candy, a gift from the Kinoshita family, the children on the train returned with some of their own candy. Fortunately, I had a few bear stickers to give them. It’s always those little surprises that made the trip so much more meaningful.

Our waiting coach took us for a short trip to Akakusa Kannon Temple built in 628; it was hosting the annual flower market. Japanese lantern plants, as we call them, were in season...and everyone in Tokyo must have bought them during the time of our visit. The place was busy with Japanese tourists and locals alike. After a prayer to Buddha, two of us headed for a local department store to cool off. It was a hot and humid day.

That evening the WYVEA national office held a party for us at the Kayabacho Pearl Hotel where we stayed. Karaoke singing and Kiren beer made for a festive occasion. We exchanged our gifts and thanked them for having facilitated our trip and for having provided us with Mari, our very lovely guide and translator. After the dinner several of us went for a walk. The hotel was located in the business district. Since so many employees work so late, they frequent the local restaurants (and bars) before returning home for the evening. The district was hopping with lights and levity. There must have been 15 taxicabs waiting for their next fare.

After an incredible lunch, they drove me to the Ginza district were I bought beautiful paper goods and stationery. I found a bookstore which only deals with the Kabuki; there I bought two old programs. We attended the last act at the Kabuki Theater. At one point the main actor was suspended in air on what appeared to have been a clothesline. The costuming and the sets were visually appealing. However, it was difficult to follow the story line. My Japanese is limited to a few greetings! After the performance some of us headed to a beer garden where we actually won a few beers and snacks. We convinced the management to allow us to turn in our winnings rather than wait the required next visit to claim our gains. At 5 AM the next morning, the alarm clock reminded me of my interest in the tuna auction at the Tokyo Fish Market...a must see in my DK guide book. The subway station was initially deserted when six of us arrived. Within minutes people came running for the train that would get them to work at the fish market. The sights and sounds of the auctioneers coupled with the carts laden with huge tuna and other fish made for an unusual, yet memorable, experience.

Upon return to the hotel at 7:30 AM, I made a quick change and went to Ueno Park with another from the group. We were confident at navigating two of the Tokyo subway lines. The Ueno Park inhabitants were awaking from their sleep, as we walked across the park visiting a temple or two along the way to the National Museum where a special exhibition of Michizane Tenjin was held. He is considered to be the guiding spirit of scholarship and literature. We wish that we could have had more time, but alas, had to return to the hotel for our 12:30 PM departure for the airport. Mari Takebayashi, our translator / guide, waited with us until we were all aboard our return flight. She was the BEST. We returned home with memories to last a lifetime.

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